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Watching TV Without Seeing It

By DEBORAH KENDRICK · April 20th, 2005 · In My View
If you were one of the people who called WCPO (Channel 9) last week to complain that some kind of alien forces had laid claim to your audio -- especially during Oprah -- please read on.

What you experienced was probably something like this: Out of one speaker, your TV is sending the usual sounds -- Oprah interviewing a guest, a commercial for some great anti-depressant, a bit of the weather forecast -- and out of the other came a most annoying "loop" message that repeated over and over a nonsensical bit of information that was something like this: "You are listening to the SAP channel on your TV. This second audio program channel is used to carry audio description for viewers who are visually impaired."

If you called the station, you were told to turn off the SAP and your audio would return to normal. Even if you didn't call, chances are that you were trying to figure out how to turn it off.

Unless you were me. Or one of hundreds of other Tristate area folks who are as giddy as kids in a free-for-all giveaway at Toys R Us over the implication of what SAP can bring. In fact, while you were struggling to turn it off, I was trying to figure out how to turn it on.

While it comes as a big surprise to some people, most people who are blind or visually impaired watch television. Why wouldn't we? It's an intrinsic part of popular culture in America. I grew up on Rocky and Bullwinkel, The Three Stooges, Ben Casey and later The Smothers Brothers, M*A*S*H and even The Waltons.

I've been blind since age 5, so I wasn't "watching" any of these programs in the literal sense, but I'm sure I got the usual level of pleasure from the experience. Back then it was pretty easy to figure out what was happening on the screen with only audio input. But times -- and television -- have changed.

The art of video description went public around 1990.

Of course, it was already happening in living rooms and theaters across the country. "What's happening?" was a common refrain spoken by moviegoers or TV lovers who were blind or visually impaired, as they turned to their seeing spouses, parents or best friends for explanation of what the thief just took from the drawer, who shot whom or what the leading actress looked like. Just as closed captioning gave deaf viewers the spoken lines in a visual format, so video description came along to fill in the gaps for blind people.

The description is written tightly to fit into the spaces or pauses in a program, so the narrator of description is never stepping on the lines of the characters. Video description is carried on the SAP channel of your television set -- a channel you maybe never knew was there -- and thus can be turned off or on at will.

PBS was the first network to carry programming with description, beginning with Mystery! and Masterpiece Theatre in the early 1990s. Today on WCET (Channel 48), you can hear video description accompanying such programs as Nova, American Experience, Nature and Sesame Street. A number of cable networks -- TCM, Lifetime, Pax and others -- have also added description to some programs.

Commercial networks have been slower to follow although, due to federal legislation, all of them will be on board over the next few years.

But when ABC launched its new series Blind Justice on March 8, the network was savvy enough to realize that, since the series is about a homicide cop who loses his sight and sues to get his job back, there would probably be a lot of blind viewers interested. So they paid to have video description added to the program.

Joe Martinelli, WCPO's director of engineering, had the SAP ready to air for the fourth episode of Blind Justice, which aired March 29. But so many confused viewers called in when the message about SAP interrupted the Oprah show that the station was flooded with complaints. Ratings went down that night, so General Manager Bill Fee gave orders to pull the plug.

WCPO's evening news March 23 carried a story about video description and SAP, trying to educate viewers. But when the fifth episode of the police drama aired April 5, the SAP channel was silent.

Steven Bochco, who produced Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, is the mastermind behind Blind Justice, and he's doing an admirable job of it. Sure, his character, Jim Dunbar, makes a few mistakes with his guide dog, but there's more right than wrong with the portrayal of blindness, and the story lines are fast-paced and entertaining.

This single hour is the only hour that ABC is currently providing description for, so it's a pretty big deal to people who are blind and want to enjoy the show. If the SAP is turned on, the brief message stating that it is the SAP channel will play repeatedly, replaced by description only during the 10 p.m. Tuesday Blind Justice episode.

Fee's plan was to educate viewers about the SAP channel and how to turn it on and off and then, when the issue was resolved, turn it back on for those who want and need it.

WCPO reactivated the SAP service April 12.

So, if you were one of those people who called to complain, maybe you could call again and congratulate the station. Now that it has been turned back on, try listening to the description to understand what I was missing.

Most TVs made in the past decade have an SAP channel. Usually, it can be turned on and off with a remote control. Consult the manual, or see instructions WCPO has posted at www.wcpo.com/wcpo/ sap.html.



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